With his top button on, Pascal put the medal around his neck and pinned it into place, then flipped down his collars. Adjusting it carefully, he made sure the gleaming black Knight's Cross outlined in white gold was perfectly centered. Staring back at the dresser mirror, he examined the dashing grin that reflected back before giving it a nod of approval.
He spun his heels around in their leather boots before walking around the bed.
Today was the first time that Pascal saw Kaede's sleeping face. Even inside the warm dormitory keep, the small girl snuggled into the thick comforter with only her head exposed. Turned to the side, her cream-white hair scattered across her gentle sleeping face, peaceful except for the dark outlines under her eyes.
Another stab of guilt sunk into his chest, but Pascal steeled himself and shook her through the bedcovers.
There was no response, so he did it again.
"Come on, wake up already," he called after the fifth time, finally eliciting a response:
"I said wake up."
Two small hands emerged from the bedcovers to rub her eyes.
"Talk about a heavy sleeper..."
"C-couldn't give me a few more minutes?" Kaede yawned as her thin arms stretched out, her eyes still closed. "I couldn't sleep till like three-something..."
"Sleep earlier then. I have already given you leeway today. You need to wake up at the same time as everyone else when I go campaigning."
Her pink eyes finally opened, highlighting the shadows below them as her cherry lips formed a scowl.
Pascal slowly waved his hand over her while he whispered the Refreshen spell. Her countenance instantly grew less pale, the bags under her eyes disappearing while a healthy tinge of pink returned to her cheeks.
Maybe he overdid it a little. Kaede looked like she was sporting a disgruntled blush.
Kind of cute, actually, Pascal smiled.
"Better. Now, dress up and remember your research tasks today. Get up earlier tomorrow if you want breakfast -- I cannot wait any longer; morning practice in fifteen. I will see you at lunch."
With that, Pascal went straight out the door.
----- * * * -----
"...What's that commoner girl doing here? This is a prestigious library!"
"Orders from the Runelord, who else? Must have gotten her special treatment..."
"...She's still blushing? Has she no shame?"
Kaede swore that the familiars' whole 'eyes and ears' concept made her senses more keen than necessary. She couldn't even concentrate with all the whispering that reached her ears.
It was a Monday morning, but a few dozen people occupied the library nonetheless. They all looked like senior students or research assistants working on a project. Most of these mages completely ignored her, but just a few gossiping mouths were more than enough to irritate.
"Hey, familiar girl," a tall lady with long, golden-blond curls slammed her palms into the desk. "Tell your master to keep you on a shorter leash. You're an eyesore here by yourself. This is a nobles' academic sanctuary, not a whorehouse!"
Kaede flipped another page.
"Are you listening, you ignorant commoner!?"
Kaede finally tilted her head and looked upwards with half-open eyes that barely cared:
"Pascal says you're a blithering idiot and that I should ignore you. I think I agree."
The noblewoman looked like her face was about to spontaneously combust and explode.
Kaede went back to reading, or trying to...
"Listen here you little bitch, I don't care if your master reserved this desk. You get the hell out of here or I'm going to give you the whipping you deserve. Do I make myself clear?"
"Ah, that is Lisel von Straussen." Pascal's voice popped into her head. "Talk about pot calling kettle black. How does that tramp have the brain capacity to attack you when she can barely scrub two cells together for a passing grade?"
"You're not helping, Pascal; and could you knock before tapping in like this?"
"Tell her that--"
"Look, they may be afraid to challenge the Runelord to a duel, but if I keep it up after dropping your name and they don't relent, they're going to challenge me."
"So give them the beatdown you showed me. They will not even see it coming." Pascal sounded oddly proud.
What, just like you didn't? Kaede amused herself before sending back:
"Precisely. Most of them probably believe I'm just a pushover familiar girl who surprised you with a punch, and that the story got exaggerated somehow -- Ariadne does harbor a very public grudge against you, after all. I'd prefer it if they kept thinking that way.
"Not bad at all.
Pascal's reply rang with approval, and Kaede wondered if he was really being impulsive, or if he was just testing her.
Sighing, Kaede stood up from her chair, piled her book plus three others into a small stack, and left without a word.
Whatever, not like I can concentrate in here anyway.
Without someone she was friendly with -- or at least getting friendly with -- Kaede didn't exactly feel comfortable around new people or places. With her books in hand, she headed back to the dormitories, ignoring the noblewoman's departing screech.
She felt the disdain of the librarian's glance as she walked past.
Yeah yeah, I'm just a commoner, foreigner at that. Get used to it, you prissy nobles.
Kaede rather missed having Pascal's 'you-are-all-idiots' attitude shield her from the rest of the world. Sure, his disdainful eyes were annoying. But a roomful of nobles hitching their arrogant noses at her made that seem a paradise by comparison.
----- * * * -----
After another lunch in the dining hall with Pascal, Kaede returned to his room to continue her research. She found three interesting historical references, and each time Pascal tapped her senses directly to read in. The convenience was undeniable, but it was also annoying, not to mention bizarre to turn pages for a pair of eyes that served as someone else's camera.
Still, thrice was enough. By the third time, she finally told Pascal to ask first before reaching through her eyes and ears.
His reply was a defensive "all right, I promise!"
In the meantime, two other thoughts kept bouncing back to the fore of her mind:
Conclusion #1: Fantasy realms needed a magical version of the Internet, not to mention magical Google and Wikipedia. They could probably skip Magebook though. Information processing and networking spells couldn't be that hard when Pascal managed to tap into her own biological sensory network this easily.
Conclusion #2: She was rapidly becoming a shut-in, emerging only to retrieve food and books, and conversing with barely more than one person per day. This was worrisome.
The door then opened without waiting for a response. A petite young maid with short brown hair, the same who often served Pascal in the dining hall, backed into the room with a large cart in tow.
She almost dropped the handle when she turned around.
"I'm sorry Miss, the third years are taking a required course right now. I d-didn't actually expect anyone here."
Sitting on the bed in an orchid-pink dress, Kaede put down her book and returned a welcoming smile.
"Don't worry about it. My name is Kaede, what's yours?"
"M-marina," she bowed. "I'm one of the two maids responsible for the third-year students, Miss Kaede."
"Just Kaede is fine. It's not like I'm one of those noblemen."
"Ah, I've heard... that you were summoned from afar... as a familiar."
"That's right." Kaede tried not to make the maid Marina any more nervous, but all she managed to keep up was a wry smile. "Do you normally only clean when nobody is here?"
"Yes!" Marina nodded bit too eagerly. "The nobles do not appreciate seeing us common servants at work, so we try to be discrete whenever possible."
Thinking back to her dining hall experiences, Kaede remembered that Pascal never even acknowledged, let alone thanked, the servants who brought his food. Nor, for that matter, did most other nobles she saw, except...
"Ariadne seemed friendly with you all though."
Marina's lips finally curled upwards with a hint of joy.
"Miss von Zimmer-Manteuffel is one of the few nobles who do greet us with friendliness." Then, sighing: "unfortunately, she's a very rare minority; most of them pretend we don't exist."
"Stupid nobles with their oversized noses and squinty eyes need to learn some respect," Kaede lashed out at the opulent room she stayed in. Her gaze then returned to find Marina grinning back in silent and total agreement.
However, the maid's expression soon returned to one of sympathy and worry intermixed with curiosity:
"I also heard you gave Mister... I mean Sir von Moltewitz a beating? Did your master punish you any further than cutting meals? He was in a fouler mood than I've ever seen him yesterday morning, but he seemed all better today."
Kaede's eyebrows disappeared into her bangs for a second. I swear, how do nobles keep any secrets from these servants?
"Yeah, a surprise kick to the crotch and he couldn't even defend himself, imagine that," Kaede lied with a totally unapologetic grin. "And not really, Pascal has actually respected me more since then. Goes to show that we can't just take things lying down or these nobles will just see us as useless; we have to push back whenever we get the chance!"
For a brief second, Kaede thought Marina's eyes glittered in amazement. Within minutes, they were chatting like friends, bonding through the power of complaints.
Grumbling to others wasn't something Kaede used to do. In fact, she hadn't even realized that since becoming a girl, she had become far more whinier, albeit for good reasons. Nevertheless, it quickly bridged the distance before Marina was comfortable enough to ask her first personal question:
"Kaede, do you miss your home back in Samara? I mean, I'm guessing by your appearance and attitude towards the nobles that you are Samaran?"
Kaede's grin froze as a torrent of nostalgic images flooded in: her classmates celebrating the newest acceptance letter, her friends chatting after practice, her parents welcoming her home...
"I'msorrythatwasinappropriateofme!" Marina blurted out as a tear slid down Kaede's cheeks. But the latter girl shook her head, melancholic and glassy-eyed, but still forcing on a wistful smile.
"Yes, I do miss home. I wish I could return, but I can't, so there's no point worrying over it."
She didn't even bother correcting Marina's guess about her origins. There just wasn't a point anymore.
Marina had to return to her maid work soon after, and Kaede rediscovered her amusement at what seemed to be a magical vacuum cleaner powered by ether-storing crystals. Not being a mage, Marina couldn't actually turn the appliance on or off, only manipulate its intake controls.
The same cleaner also had an enchanted nozzle for cleaning chamber pots.
Whatever modern thoughts Kaede had on the role, being a medieval maid, at least, was not a job that she envied at all.
----- * * * -----
Pascal's last course of the day was held in the second drill hall. It was more of a stone amphitheater, but with a massive stage ringed by only two meager rows of benches. Advanced Spellsword Combat was an elective class open to upperclassmen and offered every semester, so at the moment only thirty-two noble cadets stood in loose formation.
It was also the only 100% practical course in the academy. Books, parchment, and ink weren't even allowed here. The only acceptable tools of teaching and learning were spells and swords. The usual homework was recovering from injuries, which automatically made students strive for perfection.
"As you all know, the most commonly practiced combat magic style in Hyperion is Aura Magic, utilized for its multiple stances that shift and adapt to circumstances, as well as high spell acceleration which allows rapid ether transfer and spellcasting. However, contrary to many claims, the popularity of Aura Magic is not an indicator of superiority. For example: Runic Magic may be a favorite of the barbaric Northmen, but its capacity for precast and contingent spells that may be activated in a second cannot be underestimated -- as many of you learned the hard way from Sir von Moltewitz."
Contrary to both his name and occupation, Professor Sir Siegfried von Kirchner looked anything but martial. At one-fifty-nine centimeters (5'2"), he was shorter than most girls, and his clean-shaven, chubby cheeks left traits of a boyish appearance despite being just shy of 'elderly'. But the Knight's Cross he wore was also set on an eight-pointed starburst -- the 'Twin-Starred Cross' which represented the highest distinction of battlefield valor in the Kingdom. As a master of multiple combat styles, anyone who underestimated his whimsical forest-green eyes were in for a painful lesson.
"...The key to winning is found not just in practice and experience, but a thorough understanding of the other styles' capabilities. Runic Magic may bring a large cache of prepared spells that may be dumped into battle in an instant, but its glyphs only activate and target by touch. This hampers its offensive potential and allows a skilled Aura Magic user to keep his distance until he can level the playing field. Sir von Moltewitz, Mister von Witzinger, would you be gracious enough to demonstrate."
Professor von Kirchner and the rest of the class quickly left the platform for the benches, leaving just Pascal and the fiery-haired Reynald on stage. Both of them had agreed heartily to the professor's request, but neither of them looked thrilled as they confronted one another.
"What's wrong, Runelord, cold feet in the face of superiority?" Reynald smirked a savage grin as he lowered the mass of his already short, one-sixty-three (5'4") stature even further, one wooden kukri held in each hand.
Pascal never even bothered to respond; his steely gaze met the challenge with an imperturbable poker face, his wooden courtblade -- a heavy rapier with a slashing edge -- held in a classic fencing stance.
"You may begin!" Professor von Kirchner's words rang like a starting bell.
Leaping forward, Pascal charged Reynald without delay, his blade thrusting forth and slashing down. At the same time, his left hand stretched out with fingers extended, triggering a contingency effect as four rune-engraved pebbles materialized into his hand from the extra-dimensional storage glove. They activated a split second later, surrounding Pascal with the invisible aura of his anti-projectile Repulsion Field, five rotating turquoise shields of his auto-blocking Spellshield Fortress, and the unseen plates of his weightless Barrier Armor, which grew translucent as the magic-resistant Barrier Guard layered onto it.
With four powerful defensive enhancements set in the blink of an eye, Pascal could focus his attention completely on offense.
But after three leaps back which avoided Pascal's repeated attacks, Reynald flashed to the other side of the platform in a bolt of lightning, literally.
"Armor Aura Burst!" the redhead called, sending out a pressurized blast of air as he used his aura stance switch to conjure an invisible suit of magic armor. Reynald then crossed his twin kukris before his eyes.
Meanwhile Pascal activated the second four buffs of his usual defensive array, followed by scattering an entire bag of runic pebbles across the arena. With the field under his control, he charged again.
But Reynald unleashed the crimson magic pumped into his practice weapons with a set of Ancient Draconic words:
"Scorch-Ether, Catalyst Fragmentation Dispel!"
Burst-mode Aura Magic was known for having the highest spell acceleration of all casting styles, but it had a high tendency to overwhelm the nerve conduits and leave the body numb. Prolonged use could even lead to temporary or permanent paralysis.
The X-shaped fire blast sucked in atmosphere like a black hole as it soared towards Pascal. His Repulsion Field popped like a bubble under a gargantuan hammer. One of his turquoise shields then met the attack, breaking into three pieces under its power but shattering the offensive spell. Yet instead of dispersing, Reynald's dispel fragmented into four parts that pierced into Pascal's translucent armor. The entire suit glowed as Barrier Guard fought to maintain the defense, only to collapse into a kaleidoscopic burst of mana less than two seconds later. Not done with its job, the shards of fiery-red magic then penetrated Pascal himself.
The Runelord staggered. Steam began to pour from his sizzling body as hostile antimagic crashed against his ether network. His second set of four self-buffs backfired, fueling the hostile incursion as Elemental Body of Earth, Shift Impulse, Mental Clarity, and Metabolic Boost transformed into volatile ether. His speed broke as his teeth clenched down in pain.
A second lightning-transformation put Reynald just behind the distracted Pascal. Coming out in a spin and infused with the ward-piercing Negation spell, his dual kukris struck the Runelord like twin rotor blades, bringing the latter to his knees.
"Stop!" the professor called out. "Thank you, Sir von Moltewitz. Mister von Witzinger, please escort him to..."
Kneeling on all fours and panting in pain did not stop Pascal from cutting in:
"I am fine, Sir!"
Professor von Kirchner nodded before turning back to the class:
"The four-part spell Mister von Witzinger just used is the bane of Runic Magic users' tendency to over-buff themselves. Dispel is your classic antimagic spell, and Catalyst allows it to push through multiple defenses in an increasingly-powerful cascading chain reaction. Fragmentation gives it a chance to break past even the most powerful dispel-warding barriers, and Scorch-Ether not only boosts penetration power, but also makes certain that the final impact leaves a stunning impression."
"Remember that a spellsword relies neither on blasting the opponent nor overwhelming them through pure martial prowess, but by a synergistic combination of arcana, steel, and tricks," the short professor emphasized. "Barrier Armor plus leather and steel will reduce most physical attacks to mere wounds. Infused Guard, Resistance, and other defensive magic diminish most hostile spellfire down to tolerable nuisances, particularly for alchemy or enchantment spells which a mage's innate ether may outright repulse."
"To score a decisive hit, you must be flexible, you must be adaptive. Think on your feet and respond accordingly, let magic be your fist and bring home victory!"
Near the end of class an hour later, after Pascal properly restored his health, Reynald accosted him again in the benches:
"Up for a real duel that isn't pre-scripted this time? Doesn't exactly please me any to win a fixed match."
"Of course," Pascal grunted as he stood back up, still sore all over. "You know I could have easily dodged that blast."
"We'll see," Reynald sneered back.
----- * * * -----
"So... where's my bed?" Kaede didn't even bother taking her eyes off her book.
"In Phantasia," Pascal grumbled before climbing into bed bare-chested, snuggling just close enough without touching her. "Ugh, my back still hurts; that Reynald is unnaturally good at dueling... you think someone stupid and gullible enough to fall for every propaganda piece would not be a spellsword genius."
"His Holiness is fair," she replied, her casual eyes still reading. "With one noodly appendage he giveth, with the other he taketh away."
Pascal just stared at her for a few seconds, then waved the light off:
"Your world is crazy."
Sighing, Kaede pulled down the bookmark string, closed the tome, and laid it on her bedside table.
One night he'll learn to ask first.
...Like that, another day passed in the new world. The rest of the week went by the same way, except after Friday's afternoon chat-break, Kaede was sure she could now consider Marina a new friend, therefore averting or at least delaying her 'shut-in' crisis.
----- * * * -----
"You still haven't managed it?" The new chief groundskeeper snarled, a yeoman -- commoner of the first class -- mage hired only two weeks ago to fill a vacancy left when his predecessor died in an accident.
"I'm sorry," Marina trembled, her eyes nailed to his feet. "Kaede... his familiar girl is in his room all day. It's hard to do it without being noticed, so I'm trying to gain her trust."
"Well, you have one more week. If we miss the deadline and our lord is punished by the Emperor, it will be on your hands, girl. I certainly do not wish to be deemed worthless and a security risk by that squad of killers in town," he warned before departing from the shadowy alcove where he cornered her.
[ Next Chapter ]